In the 1930s when America was struggling through the Great Depression, people would look to the World’s Fairs to find hope that their tomorrows might be brighter than the gritty present they were struggling through. With Detroit constantly trying to prove to the outside world that it can build itself back up, perhaps The Henry Ford Museum’s exhibit featuring the World’s Fairs during the nation’s darkest hour has arrived just in time.
The event is called “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s.” It runs through September 2.
Much of the draw of the World’s Fairs in the 30s, as well as the continuing fascination over the years, is the focus on futuristic and art deco designs.
“It offered hope for the future,” said Donna Braden, curator of public life at The Henry Ford. “(The Fairs) showed how far we’ve come and that the future can be bright.”
With the Guardian and Fisher buildings as only two of the wide array of examples of art deco-styled buildings that dot the map of Detroit, it’s no wonder that so many pieces were loaned out to the Henry Ford. In fact, Detroit is considered one of the best areas to spot the architectural style.
Of course it isn’t the art deco itself that made the fairs popular and enduring, but rather the wild images of futuristic living that they helped burn across the attendees’ imagination. And design was only a part of that.
The best example of the future being a shining one is Elektro. Elektro was a mechanical man built by Westinghouse for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The gleaming mechanical man looked like he was pulled right off the cover of one of the era’s pulp magazines. Even today the sight of the gleaming giant in the middle of his section is still an impressive and maybe even awe-inspiring image. Right next to Elektro is footage taken of him at the fair calming the fears of a populace worried about being replaced by machines.
The World’s Fairs also showed a look at a future that actually did come true.
For instance, while electricity had been used for lighting for several decades at this point, this was the first time it was shown to be used for other things. One example was introducing the world to the electric dishwasher. While that is commonplace these days, a video at the exhibit shows a woman hand washing going up against another woman using a mechanical dishwasher to the thrill of an eager audience.
Throughout the 30s there were six World’s Fairs, and each one is covered at the exhibit.
Chicago celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1933-1934. Dallas spent 1936 celebrating 100 years in the union. 1939 marked San Francisco celebrating the Golden Gate Bridge, and New York gazed into tomorrow with Futurama. 1936 had Cleveland hoping to turn around the desperate economy with its imaginative setting. San Diego also had a fair in ’36 to promote its economy, which had slowed during the Great Depression.
Far from being just general interest, the World’s Fairs actually held quite a bit of meaning to the Detroit area. Perhaps the best know example of this is the Rotunda, which Henry Ford ordered built for the Chicago fair. After the fair was over, part of the original building was brought back to Dearborn and became a part of the city’s iconography. There were even Christmas celebrations there for years. This is, of course, just one example of reusing World’s Fair buildings.
The most obvious examples of the World Fairs impacting Detroit are the history of Ford and GM competing for attention at the fairs. Competition was so intense that Henry Ford boycotted the Chicago World’s Fair when GM demonstrated a moving assembly line, which he had done at a previous fair. Ford ended up going for the second year, after an attempt at his own travelling fair, more akin to an Auto Show.
The Fairs were so important and drew so big of a crowd that not showing up was just bad business.
Henry Ford and his company were a big part of the fair, and it so important to Ford that the Henry Ford Museum put together its own companion piece about Ford and the World’s Fairs. Looking through their own archives they found a wide assortment of information, and set up a display featuring them right outside the main feature’s exit.
Braden said she believes she may have been the only one to look back over those PR files. Among the special Ford display is a photo print of Santa Clause on a tractor and a list of cars premiered at Fairs including the V-8 truck and the Lincoln Zephyr.
“I felt like I was looking in someone’s personal file cabinet,” Braden said about the depth of the artifacts.
The World’s Fairs were important especially in a time when America had lost much of its confidence in itself and the future. They gave people hope for the future, which made them so iconic people traveled over multiple states to attend. They are such big a part of American heritage that Superman got a special comic published specifically for the World’s Fair in New York and is the official first time an actor portrayed the Man of Steel.
The exhibit at The Henry Ford is designed to appeal to history buffs and those merely curious about American culture and its origins and the visions that brought us to where we are today.
Each time a specialty is set up it takes 2 years of planning from conception to opening. It is an especially challenging task since they have to compete with the science museums for many of the specialties brought into the store.
The exhibit is free with museum admission. Members are free of charge. The cost is $15 for non-members and seniors age 62 & up, $17 for non-member adults and $12.50 for non-member youth age 5-12. Children under four are free.
Photos by Damon Trestain